Portugal

I was invited to speak at the JOIN2003 conference, at the University of Minho in Portugal by Jose’ Castro about a week ago. Ilenia and I were in the middle of moving to our new apartment in Padova, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to go to Portugal, someplace that I had heard good things about and that I have wanted to visit.

In any case, I left Padova on June 4th bound for (O)Porto, Portugal aboard an Iberia Air plane, and after an uneventful flight, was subsequently collected at the airport by Jose, who took me to the University. Even from the air, I was impressed by how verdant the countryside is, and infact, while driving to the town of Braga where the University is located, we drove up and down through hills of pine and eucalyptus forests, which were beautiful.

Upon arriving, I met several of the conference organizers – all students – and professors. It was obvious that they had done a very professional job of organizing everything. They had a nice auditorium for the presentations, and a sharp looking printed programme of the event.

I had to get up at 4:30 in the morning to catch my flight. OUCH! So, after several hours rest in the afternoon, I went out for a beer with Jaime Villate, who was kind enough to drive up from Porto to meet with me, after responding to my email on a Debian list. Beyond the fun of participating in a worldwide volunteer effort to work on Linux software, Debian is also a great way to meet people when you travel! It was interesting to talk with Jaime – he’s from Colombia, has lived in many places throughout the world, and now works as a Physics professor at the University of Porto – impressive.

In the evening, we went out for dinner at Abadia d’Este (I think that’s the name), an excellent restaurant a ways up one of the hills above town. The food and wine (Vinho Verde) were wonderful, but I don’t recall too much, as I was absolutely “knackered”, to borrow a term from the British. Speaking of which, one of the other conference speakers was a Briton – Simon Peyton Jones, one of the creators of the Haskell language, and the GHC Haskell compiler. Talking with him was interesting, and it was of course obvious that he’s an extremely intelligent individual, with a passion for his research, and the humility to not make the more ordinary of us feel like dimwits when talking with him. Getting the chance to chat with him was nice.

The following day, infact, Simon’s talk was very well done, even if I didn’t follow all of it due to my lack of knowledge of the Haskell programming language. It was also a tough act to follow – having taught at the University of Glasgow, he apparently has a lot of experience talking in public, and was quite entertaining. Or at least as entertaining as one can get one talking about nuances of functional programming languages!

My talk (Integrating Apache and Tcl in the Rivet apache module) went ok, and Ilenia arrived in time for another tasty lunch at the University’s restaurant. She had come out a day later in order to be able to attend the Bionova fair in Padova, which was apparently not up to her expectations. Most of the companies present were not there to showcase what they were doing, but rather had booths in order to sell their wares to the scientists there. The “no-globals” were also outside to protest against the event for whatever unknown reasons.

Afterwards, we set out on our own to see Braga. I found it to be a very nice town. In small ways, one could see that historically it might not have been a particularly wealthy area, but in general it was beautiful, with a historic city center, and lots of greenery. Coming from a medium sized university town (Eugene, Oregon, 120000 people), I’ve always felt pretty comfortable in that sort of environment, so Braga made me feel right at home. Something else we both noticed were all the children. Italy is, according to recent statistics, the oldest country in the world, in terms of median age, so seeing lots of young people and families was comforting in a way. I think it’s important to have people of all ages around – which is something I also missed when living in San Francisco, where there were only 20 and 30 somethings during the dot-com boom, when I was living there.

On Friday, we went to see the Bom Jesus (“Good Jesus”) sanctuary perched atop a hill outside of town. It is comprised of a church, some hotels, and a large park area. As luck would have it, it was apparently ‘school trip day’ or something along those lines, and we had to content with hundreds of middle school kids running around. In any case, though, the area was very scenic, and had a wonderful view of the valley Braga is situated in, and the surrounding hills.

Whether it’s because Portugal is a small country (10 million people) or because they don’t wish to alter films from their original form, movies are shown in English, with Portuguese subtitles. We took advantage of this fact (which Ilenia had the good sense to ask about) to see The Matrix 2 in English. Not the best of movies, but it was fun to see something in English. In Italy, everything is dubbed, and while they do a good job of it, sometimes I miss the original. Hearing, for instance, Bart Simpson in Italian is a bit disconcerting!

Saturday, we spent some time in (O)Porto, after a stomach churning journey on top of a double-decker bus from Braga. Instead of taking the direct route, the bus wound its way up and down the windy hill roads, with the top (where we sat) lurching back and forth, which made us glad to get off in Porto and breathe some fresh air. I think I prefer Italy’s system of trains and busses, which are very easy to use, more or less efficient and timely.

My impression of Porto is that it seems like a pirate town. Well, not my first impression, but when looking across the river Douro at the storefronts near the river itself, that climb up the steep hills to the tableland beyond the river valley in a jumble of pastel-colored houses and tile rooves, it’s easy to imagine a schooner sailing up the river laden with treasures from the new world. The Port wine companies help this image out by having a fleet of boats anchored on their side of the river that are replicas of the boats that were once used to bring the wine down the river for processing. The port cellars themselves were a tourist trap (to which we too fell victim). I preferred those that didn’t try to look like more than a museum – I’m sure all the real processing happens elsewhere. Ilenia duly noted, with a touch of national pride, that Italy has plenty of wines of comparable taste and quality to Port.

On our way back, on Sunday, we had some extra time between flights to go visit Madrid, where I was able to catch up with my friend Juan Pablo after almost 3 years! We had a great time, and look forward to returning there on vacation. The weather was hot, but dry – the opposite of the oppressive, sticky, muggy heat that we returned to later in the evening in the Veneto. It’s pretty hard to describe the sensation we were faced with when walking out of the controlled climate of the airplane, but it was sure unpleasant – not unlike walking into a wall of warm, sticky molasses.

Photos

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